ORANGE — When Hannah Howard awoke on May 8, 2019, it felt like an ordinary day. At home in Gordonsville with her father and older brother, the Orange County High School junior was going to get ready for school.
Then she heard her father yell out sharply. She had no idea what had happened; she thought maybe he had stubbed his toe or suffered some other minor incovenience.
“And then I heard the ambulance and I knew,” Howard said during a recent interview at the high school. “I looked out my window, and my dad was outside pacing. I ran downstairs, and [my brother] was laying in our laundry room and the EMS guy looked at me and was like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ The only thing I could think at that moment was, ‘Oh my God.’”
Devon Howard, 27, was dead of a drug overdose. The way Hannah tells it, what her brother surely thought was heroin was actually fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller and a lethal ingredient in the national opioid epidemic.
In the weeks that followed, Howard mourned the loss of her brother while enduring a barrage of “rumors and speculations” about him. Although she and her mother posted a brief notice online to ward off unkind and thoughtless remarks, she still heard about what people were saying on social media. And it hurt.
She describes her brother as the “life of every party” with a contagious smile and deep love for his family and friends: “My brother wasn’t just a drug addict. He was Devon.”
“We always joke that to know Devon was to love Devon,” she said, her somber expression momentarily giving way to delight.
Although the two were 10 years apart, they were close. According to family lore that Howard repeats with tears sparkling in her eyes, he hadn’t wanted a baby sister, but after she was born, “he just loved me.”
A series of losses proved devastating. A beloved aunt died in 2000. Devon and Howard’s half-sister was murdered in 2006. Their grandparents died; their parents divorced.
“It was just one traumatic thing after another,” Howard said, “and he started with prescription pills.”
Howard, 18, has one surviving sibling, a 41-year-old half-brother who lives in Richmond. Her mother works for the Region Ten Community Services Board in Charlottesville at a residential treatment center for women recovering from drug addiction.
As an OCHS student enrolled in the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School, Howard plans to attend a four-year college, possibly Virginia Commonwealth University, and major in psychology with a concentration in mental health and substance abuse.
For now, as a way to cope with Devon’s death, she has thrown herself into her governor’s school senior legacy project, a graduation requirement designed to benefit future generations. The first part of the project involved an internship with Addiction Allies, a rehab facility in Charlottesville. She learned about the recovery process and talked with addicts.
“I feel like the main thing that people feel when their loved one is an addict is shame. And it was through talking to them that I realized that it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s a disease and they need help.”
Although some might think patients in rehab are fundamentally weak, Howard came away with the opposite impression. She met people at Addiction Allies who had suffered so much it was as if they’d been “to hell and back.” Each with a different story to tell, they all faced an uphill battle as they weathered withdrawal symptoms and the persistent desire for their drug of choice. Yet they fought on, trying as best they could to conquer their addictions.
“If they can put themselves through that,” she said, “I should be able to run miles!”
In addition to the internship, Howard wrote a research paper on how to save lives by administering nalaxone, an antidote commonly known by the brand name Narcan. She has been trained to administer the remedy, which can halt an overdose and save the victim’s life.
As part of her training in a course offered by Region Ten, she learned how to teach others the same technique. That knowledge provides the groundwork for the community service component of her project. She led a 90-minute instruction session at the Orange County Youth Council and plans to lead another at the high school.
To raise awareness of the session, she and her governor’s school classmates have gotten the word out online, and with the encouragement and support of her teachers, she has given talks about the upcoming training session in various classes. So far, more than 200 students have told her they want to become certified to administer Narcan.
Many of those students revealed they had family members with addiction problems; some said they’d lost people to overdoses.
“You’d be surprised,” Howard said, by how many local students have family members struggling with addiction.
In the training session, students learn the signs of an overdose, how to tell the difference between someone who has overdosed and someone who is high on drugs, and the different types of opioid drugs and their street names. They also learn how to administer Narcan, available as a nasal spray and an injection. Howard added that it’s the “exact same” remedy that EMTs use when they treat someone who has overdosed.
When she’s not in class or working on her project, Howard often is busy as a team manager. She manages the boys’ basketball and baseball teams, an activity she said she greatly enjoys.
Adam Utz, who coaches both teams, speaks highly of the young woman who has assisted him since she was a freshman. He describes her as self-motivated, driven and a big help to him and the players. With his current team in the midst of a highly successful season, he said, “My basketball program wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is now without Hannah.”
Her extracurricular activities and career plans make it obvious Howard likes to help other people and see them succeed. Through her governor’s school legacy project, she is working to educate her peers so they can save a life if they ever encounter someone who has overdosed.
“I just would hate for it to happen to somebody else,” she said of the horror of losing her brother. “I just don’t want to see anybody else ever go through that pain.”